Lions need to take "safe" measures

Detroit needs to plug remaining holes this off-season while making sure new ones don't appear. Tackle <B>Stockar McDougle</b> is a key cog in keeping improving run game on track

ALLEN PARK - Not since 1999 have the Lions fielded a defense with a bona-fide safety in the middle of it.

Despite his injuries and suspensions, Lions pro bowl safety Mark Carrier was the last player to really solidify the Lions deep secondary. While he himself was intended to be a stop gap until Detroit could find a solid solution, Carrier played outstanding ball in Detroit.

Receivers always knew to look over their shoulders when they came across the middle of the Lions secondary because Carrier loomed large.

Since that time, Detroit has used a series of stop gap type players to try to give them the "Bennie Blades" prototype who had speed to run in the deep zones and the ability to dislodge the ball with a solid hit.

Really, you have to go back to 1995 to find the last time Detroit fielded a SET of top notch safeties when Blades and solid strong safety "Big Play" Willie Clay manned the positions.

Detroit has gone from undrafted free agent Ron Rice to aging veteran Corey Harris to aging veteran Brock Marion at the strong safety. At free safety the turnover has been even worse from Carrier to aging veteran Kurt Schulz to Brian Walker to Bracy Walker.

While Detroit has a promising young player in second-year man Terrence Holt, their is no one in their pipeline at the free safety position and talk of moving a linebacker like Alex Lewis or James Davis to the position is ludicrous.

With the 2005 draft looming, Detroit is likely going to pick somewhere in the 9-16 range overall. If it's in the low range, the team should consider attempting to trade down and pick up extra picks, but make no mistake, they should resist the temptation to throw yet another stop gap at the position and go after one of this year's solid crop of safeties.

Georgia free safety Thomas Davis (6-foot-2, 230-pounds 73 tackles, 1 Ints, 4 passes defended) and Oklahoma strong safety Donte Nicholson 6-foot-2, 216-pounds, 58 tackles, 1 Ints) are among two of the top rated safeties.

"It's amazing to see him make the open-field tackle the way he does . . . where he'll get right down the middle of the cylinder, right down the middle of the guy, wrap up and run his feet and bury him."

Georgia coach Mark Richt told the Atlanta Journal Constitution earlier this year. "That's hard enough to do at a linebacker position, where the back's got nowhere to go. It's amazing to see him do it."

ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit called Nicholson "the best safety in college football." either could team with the versatile Holt to shore up Detroit's shoddy weak deep secondary.

If the Lions decide to throw money at the position, they may find a group of active young safeties on the free agent market. Baltimore's Will Demps, Indianapolis Idress Bashir, Jacksonville's Donovon Darius, Miami's Sammy Knight, Pittsburgh's Chris Hope, Arizona's Ifeanyi Ohalete and Atlanta's Keion Carpenter all have expiring contracts and some will likely hit the free agent market.

One thing's for sure, Detroit cannot come back with Walker and Marion as their starting tandem if they expect to make an upward move in the NFC North next season. The two have given up more than their share of big plays against opposing offenses.

Detroit likely will want Walker back because of his solid special teams play.

Detroit also needs to make signing solid right tackle Stockar McDougle a priority. McDougle was not drafted by Lions president Matt Millen who appears to favor players that he has acquired.

One school of thought is that Detroit will chose to re-sign struggling center Dominic Raiola rather than McDougle feeling that they cannot afford to re-sign both. If that is the case, McDougle has clearly shown more proficiency than Raiola, handling some of the league's toughest pass rushers this season.

Raiola, while improving, still has a long way to go to justify his selection as a second round pick.

Detroit can't afford to weaken an improving, but far from dominant offensive front by trading a solid player for a weak one. McDougle should be retained unless his demands are a deal breaker. Hopefully Detroit and Millen learned a tough lesson from the Jeff Hartings-for-Brenden Stai swap they attempted to pull off in 2001. The move backfired in every conceivable way.

The lesson? You can only get better by acquiring better players.

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